>WE CAN'T LOAD EVERYTHING ONTO THE LAND
> I'm just back from a meeting of forest products companies in which
>everyone was enthusing about fiber that doesn't come from forests. Proud
>entrepreneurs were handing around kenaf paper, boards made from wheat straw,
>cardboard made from hemp.
> These products, they said, can stop deforestation. Over the last 50
>years one-fourth of the world's forests have disappeared. The human
>is growing by 90 million a year. World paper demand is doubling every 20
>years. These trends can't last forever or even much longer. Some companies
>the meeting are already facing wood shortages.
> The folks who make pencils, for example, say they're running out of
>incense cedar, which has provided pencil stock for decades. They're
>experimenting with pencils made from recycled cardboard. Paper companies
>fooling around with bamboo, flax, sugarcane waste and fast-growing tropical
>trees, sown and fertilized like corn fields, harvested every seven years.
>such plantations, one guy told me, we can grow all the world's paper on an
>the size of Sweden.
> I would find this news cheery, if I knew there were enough chunks of
>unused tropical farmland to add up to a Sweden (and in 20 years two
>and if I hadn't also been listening to the energy industry. Low oil prices
>be lulling consumers, but suppliers know how many oil fields are nearing the
>end of their productive life, and they're watching global conferences get
>serious about cutting back fossil fuel burning to ease the greenhouse
>We'll need substitutes for oil, coal, and gas later or sooner. One
>they're talking about is biomass.
> The North Dakota company making kitchen cabinets from straw may have
>compete with the Danish company making boilers that burn straw by the bale
>(loaded in with forklifts) to make electricity and steam for district
>Sugarcane waste is already a major fuel in sugar mills. Those fast-growing
>tropical trees are needed for village cooking. We subsidize Archer-Daniels
>Midland to make car fuel from corn, and millions of cars in Brazil run on
>ethanol made from sugarcane. The Germans and Swedes are perfecting cars
>run on vegetable oil.
> Is there enough farmland to relieve depleting forests and depleting
>wells at the same time? And depleting fisheries? Thirteen of the fifteen
>major ocean fisheries are in decline, primarily because of overfishing.
>industry too has thought of a substitute: aquaculture. The trouble is, the
>feed for fish farms comes not from the ocean's food chains any more, but
>grain raised on land.
> So we are planning to transfer the burdens currently borne by the
>forests, the oceans, and the oil wells to the farmland, while feeding 90
>million extra people each year, though we are not feeding everyone
>now. Meanwhile, in one of the least noted and most historic shifts of this
>century, total food raised per capita worldwide peaked in the mid-1980s and
>gone down ever since. There are many reasons for that turnaround, but one of
>the big ones is the loss of cropland.
> In the last ten years the United States has buried 3.8 million acres
>prime soil under buildings and pavement. Over the same period booming Asia
>lost ten percent of its grainland to urbanization. Erosion, salinization,
>other forms of bad management have destroyed, according to the U.N., 16
>of global cropland, with another 52 percent "moderately degraded" and
>"greatly reduced productivity."
> While the world's swelling cities are paving farmland and demanding
>food, they are also sucking in water. San Diego and El Paso are buying
>away from farmers. Parts of India, Indonesia, and Malaysia will have to
>irrigate 15-30 percent less land to meet their urban water demands. From
>to Mexico to California's Central Valley, irrigation is pumping out
>faster than it recharges. When the water is gone, some of the world's
>soils will no longer be able to grow food or fiber or energy.
> The agriculture sector is planning to solve these problems, of
>by using more fossil fuel for fertilizer, by expanding forests to renew
>supplies and control erosion, and by composting straw and other fibrous
>to bring back the humus content and water absorptive capacity of the soil.
> Something here does not compute.
> I have no doubt that we can increase crop yields, make fish and
>plantations, turn almost any plant into fiberboard or paper, recycle
>run cars on biofuels, and use the earth's resources with much higher
>and more careful stewardship. I hope we will. I just don't see how we'll
>there, if the managers of every resource plow heedlessly through it,
>they can turn to some other resource when theirs is gone.
> Maybe we should set up a simple rule: before you try to impress us
>your brilliant plans for invading some other resource base, please show us
>efficiently and sustainably you can manage your own.
> (Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies